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Dante Pittman, the only LFNC fellow unable to attend the D.C. summit, didn’t know what he was walking into. Before going to the School of Government kick-off picnic, he met us for the first time, stumbling into an organized chaos of line dancing, talking, and laughing. It was clear to me from the look on his face that he expected a work event, not a family reunion.

From week one, we were a family. The Changemaker Summit at Georgetown University did more than introduce us to each other and to the program — it set the foundation for the bright, determined and close-knit inaugural class we became. The training in Chapel Hill cemented that work while giving us the knowledge we needed to put that determination to good use in our jurisdictions.

The jam-packed week in D.C. with Lead for America made me more hopeful than ever that my generation could make a difference. As an environmental studies major at UNC Chapel Hill, we spent most of our class time discussing the global and local problems plaguing our region. My professors and classmates dishearteningly could not offer many sustainable solutions within that discourse.

In D.C., speakers from every demographic and political orientation guided us through discussion and debate on topics from social inequality to rural broadband to local government ethics. Hearing from a wealth of diverse and intelligent people working tirelessly to solve the world’s problems — both speakers and fellows — renewed my capacity to dream big. Just as important, in fresh-air breaks between sessions and cool nights downtown, I made lifelong friends and connections.

Back home in Chapel Hill, we got into the nitty-gritty of North Carolina local government and its challenges. That’s where we were united as the complete inaugural class for Lead for North Carolina and started down the road we’d travel for the next two years.

That road took us through twists and turns we never expected. At the beginning of the training, few of us had extensive knowledge on local government structure and function, only the drive to serve our community. Personally, the basics dazzled me. I’ll never forget when Kara Millonzi showed us a diagram of the tangled web that is county government. That moment showed me just how much I took for granted growing up in Mecklenburg County and the large gap in knowledge most citizens have regarding local government.

Throughout our days in class, we got to know several SOG faculty who held our hands through government contracting, budgeting, and grant writing. I’ve applied something I learned from them to my job every single day. They did more than teach me what I needed to be successful in my fellowship, however; they demonstrated what an invaluable asset the SOG is to North Carolina. Every day, I saw the dedication the faculty had to helping local government employees and making our state better for everyone.

At the end of training, all of us felt we were prepared to fly the coop. It had been an intense three and a half weeks of PowerPoints, memos, coffee, and events culminating in a wonderful evening at the Governor’s Executive Mansion. That night, we got to celebrate and acknowledge the hard work and generosity of both the Lead for America and Lead for North Carolina teams, the SOG, and our funders alongside the representatives sent by our districts. There was no better way to tie everything together and send us off.

The next morning, we gathered for the last time in the SOG, right back where Dante first got to know us. Over popsicles and boxed lunches, we reflected on our time there. Dante had instantly become a member of our family, and so did the faculty team. Just like in D.C., we made friendships that would outlast our fellowships. Though we were dispersing across North Carolina and starting our work with hours between all of us, I knew the other fellows were never out of reach.